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‘You’ve been lucky’

PRINCETON — The radio equipment at the Bureau County Sheriff’s Department is 100 percent junk and needs to be replaced, according to consultant Jim Eatock of B-K Electric.

Eatock has completed a 171-page study of the public safety emergency radio systems in Bureau County, as authorized by the Bureau County Board. The board met in special session Tuesday evening to hear the findings of Eatock’s study. In his nearly three-hour presentation, Eatock assessed the equipment which the county currently has, what the needs are, and how the county gets to where it needs to be.

According to Eatock, the only usable part of the county’s radio communication system is the Providence communication tower. The rest of the equipment needs immediate replacement. The “drop dead” deadline to comply with new requirements of the Federal Communications Center is Dec. 31, which is fast approaching, he said. However, Bureau County has known about that deadline for the past 10 years, Eatock said.

Looking at the needed upgrade, the consultant recommended the county replace the sheriff’s department’s portable and car radios with analog VHF units. Not only is the analog VHF option the only viable option that could fit into the county’s budget, VHF will also perform better in the hills, ridges and trees of the rural areas of the county. Also, with the exception of the Bureau County Sheriff’s Department, every other agency in the county already has an investment or a commitment to analog VHF, Eatock said.

The cost to upgrade the sheriff’s department with new analog VHF portable and car radios would be about $165,000 for mid-tier units, which does not include the cost of new towers, Eatock said. The county should plan to put a new tower in the budget for the next five years, he said.

But the equipment itself isn’t the only problem he’s found in Bureau County, Eatock said. The greater problem is the lack of interoperability between the sheriff’s department and various other fire, EMS and police departments throughout the county, he said.

In his interviews with local officials and agencies, Eatock said he discovered multiple situations in which counterproductive policies required the relaying of critical and time-sensitive information through multiple dispatch centers. When delays of one or two minutes happened, accuracy suffered. Many of these instances could have been avoided if direct communication between responders was allowed, as part of a regional plan, the consultant said.

“You have a mess here in Bureau County,” Eatock said. “You have policies and procedures that are directly contrary to the prime directive and the reason that we should be responders. You’ve been lucky. The big issue is someone will die, and it’s preventable.”

Eatock recommended Bureau County emergency responders have set policies and procedures developed by a new governance body comprised of all stakeholders.

In his interviews, Eatock said he did find there was a general desire to have a standard operating plan for joint agency and discipline operations. There are too many channels where emergency communications take place. All responders need one channel where they can communicate together. When someone calls with an emergency, the person who answers the phone should be the one who sticks with them, he said.

“You learned it in kindergarten. Play nice. Share your toys,” Eatock said.

On Wednesday, Kristi Warren, chairman of the Buildings and Grounds Committee for the Bureau County Board, called Eatock’s study an eye-opener for the county board.

“Last night’s presentation was an eye opener and that is why we hired a consultant; to give us a straight forward report of what he found to be the good, bad or the ugly,” Warren said. “The county board must take his assessment and determine the most pressing issues. With narrow banding at our doorstep, the No. 1 priority will be to secure a request for proposal for the radios and purchase the best communication system possible within the county’s budget. Our first and foremost concern is for the safety of our officers and staff so they can protect our residents.”

On Wednesday, Bureau County Sheriff John Thompson said he hadn’t yet seen the consultant’s complete report but was not surprised by the consultant’s recommendations. He (Thompson) knew the radio system was in great need of an upgrade, but the cost of that upgrade will be a sticker shock for some people, especially the county board, the sheriff said. However, the upgrade will greatly benefit the public safety operations in the county, he added.

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